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Around the Jewish World Peace Restored After Violent Protests, but Hungarian Jews Remain Concerned

September 27, 2006
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Peace has been restored to Budapest after violent anti-government protests tinged with anti-Semitism, but some Jews, particularly the elderly, worry about the impact of the turbulent political climate on Hungary’s Jewish community. “Older Jews feel worried, even threatened. They saw some men on the television wearing the old Hungarian Nazi uniform,” said Ferenc Olti, a banker and longtime Jewish activist.

Demonstrations in the capital against Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany broke out early last week after a speech he gave to his Socialist Party in which he said he and other party officials had lied to voters “morning, evening and night” and had “done nothing” was made public.

Earlier this month, the country’s economic forecast had to be revised downward as the country’s budget deficit ballooned to 10.1 percent of GDP, the highest in the European Union.

Protests, led by a few thousand right-wing extremists and soccer hooligans, became violent last week, with attacks on the state television station and some 200 arrests.

Many of the protesters wore fascist symbols. One was reported to have saluted Hitler, while others expressed support for the Arrow Cross, the wartime Hungarian party that murdered thousands of Jews during World War II. One protester reportedly displayed a sign that read “Jews to Auschwitz.”

Later in the week, there was a peaceful demonstration of about 40,000 in front of the Parliament seeking the prime minister’s resignation.

It was the largest public protest since the unsuccessful 1956 Hungarian revolution, but as of midweek only a few hundred people were picketing the Parliament building in Budapest.

Gabor Szanto, editor of Szombat, a Hungarian Jewish magazine, said, “Jews were afraid something would happen to them over Rosh Hashanah, but there was no incident, so things have calmed down.”

Senior right-wing opposition leaders are still pressuring Gyurcsany and his government to resign, however. Whether the protests and political instability continue will largely be determined by the results of this weekend’s municipal elections, which coincide with Yom Kippur Eve.

If there is a win for incumbent Budapest Mayor Gabor Demszky, a supporter of the prime minister, further protests are doubtful, analysts say. But if Demszky loses what is a tight race to his right-wing opponent, the prime minister’s critics will feel emboldened, demonstrations may begin anew — and the risk of anti-Jewish propaganda cannot be counted out.

Szanto, however, said many on the right do not want the stain of anti-Semitism on their campaign.

“There were some phrases uttered by protesters at the earlier demonstrations, like ‘dirty Jews,’ but it was very rare. When it happened, other protestors shouted they didn’t come here to listen to this,” he said. “I heard that one of the protesters read the names of 50 politicians and journalists, some of whom are Jews, who ‘should be made to disappear,’ but such incidents were very rare,” he said.

A protest leader who opposes the prime minister called Szanto and “and told me that I should inform him of anti-Semitic activity by demonstrators so that it would be stopped,” Szanto said.

Several observers interviewed by JTA said that although the main right-wing opposition party in Hungary, Fidesz, is not anti-Semitic, it has some anti-Semitic members and is supported by several media outlets that have printed anti-Jewish editorials.

The vast majority of the estimated 100,000 Jews in Hungary support one of the two left-oriented parties in the prime minister’s coalition, Szantos estimated.

Olti, 57, does not take comfort in the dwindling number of protesters. Unlike Szanto, he argues that the expression of anti-Jewish feelings is tolerated and even encouraged by Fidesz.

“During the larger protests, Fidesz parliamentary members spoke under the Hungarian Nazi flag. They said nothing against it, even though it was next to them,” Olti said.

Zsuzsa Fritz, director of the Balint Jewish Community Center in Budapest, agrees that the elderly are worried, even though the demonstrations have tapered off. Anti-Jewish aspects of the initial rioting brought back memories of the 1956 insurrection against Soviet rule, Fritz said. The 50th anniversary of the failed revolution is next month.

“The prisons were emptied. Then criminals, including many fascists, joined with the student movement against the Russians. They went around hanging Jews. People blamed Jews for the Soviet oppression because there were some well-known Jews in the Communist party leadership,” she said.

But a Hungarian Jew in her early 30s didn’t see what the fuss was about.

“I don’t feel anti-Semitism on the street, the extremist rightish people don’t protest against the Jews and any Jewish interest,” Agnes Szalai wrote in an e-mail. She lives in Prague but was back home in Budapest for the Jewish holidays.

“Everybody was shocked what has happened on the street on Monday and Tuesday night. But now everybody lives as they lived before, in the morning the people go to work, go for lunch, during the day the city is full of people, in the evening the youngsters go to watch films, go for dinner with there friends and enjoy the nice weather,” she continued. “That’s all what I can see. It is not revolution, just because some crazy people preach in front of the Parliament.”

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